The Braves signed Kelly Johnson to a minor league deal last week, and though he’s not assured of anything but an invite to spring training and a chance to compete for a bench spot, we’re going to write him up here. This was supposed to be Brandon Beachy’s writeup, but that’s not happening, so we’re going to go on a Kelly Johnson nostalgia field trip instead.
KJ was the Braves’ second first-round pick in 2000, chosen out of high school 38th overall. He posted a string of impressive minor league seasons in leagues he was young for, playing mostly third and short. But the Braves of the time were rather blocked at third and short, so in 2004, Kelly learned the outfield.
He was called up to the big club in May of 2005 after the end of the brief and inglorious Raul Mondesi era. Having torn up the International League to a 1.018 OPS, Kelly was immediately slotted third in the batting order… and proceeded to go 1 for his first 30 in the majors.
No matter, really; in the 112 plate appearances following that start, KJ hit .348/.459/.587, establishing a theme of streakiness that would define his Braves career. That first hot streak coincided with the callup of Brian McCann and the unofficial rise of the Baby Braves movement. Johnson, McCann, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Langerhans, Wilson Betemit, Kyle Davies, and a dozen or so other rookies got a duct-tape-and-chewing-gum operation over the hump for one last division title.
Sometime before the 2006 season, KJ blew out his UCL and missed the year rehabbing. After Marcus Giles left as a free agent the next offseason, the Braves decided Kelly’s former infielder skills could come in handy again, and they taught him second base. He was great, but streaky as ever, as a regular second baseman, posting a career year .831 OPS in 2007.
The following year wasn’t notable for Kelly, but it was notable for me w/r/t Kelly. By late July of 2008, the Braves were out of the race, but a friend who had just taken the bar exam had free mid-level seats and wanted to celebrate. So to the ballpark we went, and down the left field line we sat.
Frankly I have no idea what else happened in this game, except that Kelly was up and shot a pretty hard foul ball down the left field line. The ball took one carom off a seatback and redirected — only losing a bit of its velocity in the process — right at us. I was flanked by my girlfriend and my aforementioned friend’s fiancee, both of whom screamed and ducked. I — out of something like idle curiosity — held up my right hand, and I was as surprised as anyone that the ball stuck there.
My brother, who was also there, calls it my greatest lifetime athletic achievement, and given that I washed out of organized sports by the time I was 13, he’s not wrong. I’ve of course kept that ball displayed prominently since then; my dad’s been going to major league games for 50 years now and he’s not caught one yet, so who knows when we’ll ever see another foul ball in my family.
Anyway, Kelly Johnson. He played one more year with the Braves in 2009, dropped off offensively, and was nontendered. From there he began a journeyman’s tour, with stops in Arizona, Toronto, Tampa, New York, Boston, and Baltimore. Last year he hit .215/.296/.362 across the latter three clubs, and now here we are.
I hope Kelly Johnson sticks with the Braves this year. The Baby Braves are my age, and so they are grown and either out of the league or hanging on to the downslope of their careers. But we aren’t old, though, Kelly or I; I learned that lesson from the Baby Braves the first time around, when the sight of all these no-name rookies in what had always been Maddux, Glavine & Smoltz, LLC’s office made me feel old at the ripe age of 23, in that slightly dramatic way that college kids get about the end of college. Oddly enough, perhaps you’ve got to get just a bit older to recognize that you aren’t at all.
No longer Baby Braves, but not old men either; come hang out this summer, Kelly Johnson, and perhaps I’ll work on getting this foul ball autographed.